Best of Enemies (Magnolia Pictures, R)

best-of-enemies 75The Buckley-Vidal debates were pure show biz, and brought viewers and attention to ABC at a time when the network was in critical need of both.

 

 

 

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Many people remember the 1968 presidential campaign primarily for the police riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention there. However, other major events that took place on camera proved arguably more influential in shaping politics in the United States.

Those events are the debates between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal, televised on ABC. The debates are the subject of Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary Best of Enemies, which presents a generous sample of the debates themselves supplemented with commentary from more recent pundits like Brooke Gladstone, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Tanenhaus. The debate clips provide an interesting contrast with our current state of televised political debates while also suggesting that the differences between 1968 and today in this regard may be more superficial than substantial.

Although Vidal and Buckley came from opposite ends of the political spectrum (liberal and conservative, respectively), in other ways they had much in common. Both were privileged white men, both were well-known public intellectuals in a time when such people frequently appeared on television, both had run unsuccessful political campaigns (Buckley for mayor of New York City, Vidal for both the House and the Senate), and both had a way with words. Buckley was the founder of the National Review and hosted the public affairs program Firing Line on PBS, while Vidal was a well-known writer with titles as varied as the eminently serious play The Best Man (adapted as a film starring Henry Fonda) and the scandalous novel Myra Breckenridge (also adapted as a film, starring Raquel Welch and Rex Reed) to his credit. One key difference between the two was that Vidal was gay, a fact he had to conceal at the time, and which meant that he remained in some sense an outsider in American society no matter how many bestsellers he wrote.

The Buckley-Vidal debates were pure show biz, and brought viewers and attention to ABC at a time when the network was in critical need of both (one pundit recalls that they were known at the time as the “Budget Car Rental of TV news”). The debates were also immensely entertaining, which is perhaps surprising given that they basically consisted of two people talking on a sound stage. It worked because both participants knew how to produce witty remarks on cue (at times going after each other like latter-day Oscar Wildes), and both knew how to speak in complete sentences and even paragraphs, something you rarely see on television these days.

It would be nice to say that Buckley and Vidal stuck to discussing the issues during their debates, but that wouldn’t be correct. Specific issues (the Vietnam War, police response to protests) did come up from time to time, but more often the discussion focused more on their contrasting world views and beliefs about the best way to live. Buckley was an advocate for hierarchy and conventional forms of respect (once suggesting that the police violence in Chicago was justified because the protestors had spoken disrespectfully of the president), while Vidal argued for greater personal freedom and distrusted professional politicians.

The most memorable moment from the debates occurred when the intellectual veneer grew thin and coded language gave way to name-calling. Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley called Vidal a “queer,” insults which may sound mild given the state of language on television today, but which were an immense breach of decorum at the time. Lawsuits and explanatory articles ensued, and this incident has been cited as the moment when sensationalism replaced reason on TV. That’s overselling the influence of a single moment, but taken as a whole, the Buckley-Vidal debates were an important chapter in television history, and worth watching today as evidence of a time when political debate could accommodate more than sound bites. | Sarah Boslaugh

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